Is Graduate Education a Mess?

With the start of the semester looming just weeks away, I’ve been thinking about what I can do to change my classes and keep the content and approach fresh. I’ve blogged here a bit about my Western Civilization class. I am also teaching History 501, which is a required course for our history graduate students. It is part historical methods and part introduction to graduate school and is designed to ease the transition from undergraduate history major to graduate student. This fall, I’m going to assign Leonard Cassuto’s The Graduate School Mess: what caused it and how we can fix it (2015).    

The book is of the crisis in higher education type which, at best., targets real problems and offers real solutions and, at worst, is a kind of persistent jeremiad. Cassuto’s book manages to be a bit of both which is characteristic of the recent gaggle of books seeking to frame and solve some aspect of higher education. In Cassuto’s case, he wants to fix “the graduate school mess” and recognizes that the problems in American graduate education in the humanities may represent problems in higher education as a whole. 

The Good.

1. A Mess with Success. Cassuto is clear from the very opening pages of the book that whatever the problems with graduate education in the U.S., we continue to produce graduates with advanced degrees who have a place in the private and public sector. In fact, he starts his book with a Wall Street executive who favored hiring Ph.D.s because they could adapt so quickly to workplace challenges. Cassuto’s recognition that the current system is successful both in producing students for the academic job market (such as it is) and the larger world tempers his critique throughout. We can do better, of course, and it’s that shared expectation that will sell the book and promote his ideas, but from the very first pages Cassuto winks at us before he describes the character of the current “mess.”   

2. Historically Aware. Cassuto’s book is explicitly aware that the general of “higher education jeremiad” has a long and storied history that dates back to the early-20th century. In short, critics of higher education haves always seen graduate education as a messy process that is ripe for reform. Cassuto reminds us that he is not the first to call for reforms in graduate education and that many of the reforms that he wants – from time to completion to more flexible approaches to the dissertation – have been bandied about since the early 20th century. By recognizing the persistence of “the graduate school mess,” Cassuto makes clear that there is not an easy solution to various challenges facing graduate education and that we should not despair in our efforts to reform the process.

3. Our Problem. Cassuto makes clear that he is not directing this book at administrators, but at graduate students and faculty. In doing so, he resists the temptation to see the problems in graduate education as some kind of high level structural or institutional complication. The graduate school mess – such as it is – can be fixed by attending to the relationship between graduate students and faculty, shifting our expectations when we teach, advise, and hire, and – most importantly for Cassuto – recognizing that graduate students are students first and foremost. By see graduate students as students – rather than apprentices, incomplete peers, or low-paid labor – Cassuto calls upon us to think about graduate education in terms of human outcomes rather than in terms of perpetuating certain professional or disciplinary standards. Because Cassuto frames the “graduate school mess” as a problem that graduate faculty (and to a lesser extent graduate students) can solve, the book is remarkably empowering. 

4. The Public. On of Cassuto’s best points – and one that I’m going to try to implement in my History 501 class – is that we have to train our graduate students in the humanities to understand what the public humanities are and how they work. Moreover, we have to do more to familiarize students with the range of public careers available to them with graduate degrees in the humanities. I have ideas how to make this happen in my History 501 class. So more on this soon. 

The Bad.

1. Framing the Problem. Cassuto’s book is long on outrage, but short on specifics. In some ways, his characterization of graduate education as a “mess” reflects his own inability to pinpoint the problems specifically. He calls the increasingly protracted time to completion a problem, but recognizes that students have lives during their time in graduate school that should be respected. He regards the dissertation as both too narrowly focused and specialized, but also too long and involved. He sees the specialized environment of the seminar as outmoded but also recognizes the unique skill set and aptitude that graduate education develops. The list goes on as Cassuto tries to balance his critique of graduate education (i.e. the mess) with the broadly successful graduates who despite emerging from a mess situation go on to live fulfilling professional lives both within and outside of academia. For this book to be compelling, Cassuto needs to argue that the problem exists with evidence rather than simply assert that there is an issue. 

2. Professional Training. Cassuto recognizes that the Ph.D. developed in the U.S. as a professional degree designed to produce teachers for the growing number of colleges and university in the late 19th and early 20th century. As the need for professional scholars ebbed and flowed, so did the need for graduate training. As the academic job market in the early 21st century job has largely collapsed (or has entered a period of significant change) graduate education must adapt, but because most people in higher education regard our increasing reliance on contingent labor as bad (and, frankly, inhumane), it is very hard for us to adapt graduate education to accommodate a system that we think is profoundly corrupt. By declaring graduate education to be a mess and implying that it is outmoded, Cassuto must navigate the twin risks of seeming to support an inhumane system of contingent labor, on the one hand, and burying our heads in the sand as a form of resistance, on the other. In many ways, the “mess” confronting graduate education is this very tension between our need to produce professional scholars as a way to preserve the professional standing of academic work and our desire to do what’s best for our students.

3. Two Tiers. At the University of North Dakota we have a Doctor of the Arts program in History. I consider it a fine degree that embodies both the rigor of doctoral level training and the practical realities of academia. It’s a 3-year degree (post M.A.) which grounds our students in both content knowledge, research methods, and higher-education pedagogy. We place our students well in positions at 2-year colleges and among the contingent academic workforce. Cassuto dismisses such degrees as supporting a “two tier system” which allows us to maintain a narrower Ph.D. that reflects a vanishing professional reality but will still attract students who will resist enrolling in a D.A. because it might limit their career possibilities. Our experience is that the D.A. attracts students who have different – not diminished – expectations for their professional futures, but Cassuto prefers an expanded Ph.D. that includes tracks that emphasize teaching or even public humanities (for example) work as well as traditional research. I’m not sure that Cassuto’s system is any less “two tier” except that it might obscure that training of students who recognized that research is not their primary calling in a way that our D.A. does not. 

4. New Knowledge. Finally, I am concerned that Cassuto’s otherwise praiseworthy focus on students overlooks the fact that graduate education does more than just produce students, it also produces new knowledge. He dismissively describes the dissertation as a document that only the committee will read. Moreover, he seems willing to allow for less polished dissertations if it shortens time to degree. At the same time, he acknowledges that the academic publishing has changed and the opportunities to publish a dissertation as a traditional academic monograph have decreased significantly. The tension then between a less polished dissertation and the decline of the monograph runs the risk of making the Ph.D. a less valuable part of the larger intellectual ecosystem which – at the end of the day – exists to make new knowledge production possible.

There is no doubt that we could do a better job preparing our students for the challenges of post-graduate school job market, but we also have to recognize that the dissertation (and to a less extent the M.A. thesis) is not just a demonstration of competence on the part of the student, but also a contribution to the larger body of professional and disciplinary knowledge. Dissertations are useful, important, and with the advent of digital distribution channels, accessible documents that are as much a product of graduate school as the student or the degree.

The Ugly.

1. The Student. The thing that bothered me most about Cassuto’s book is that it both pushed faculty to respect the student more while at the same time, tempering our student’s hopes that they could have a productive and meaningful academic career. On the one hand, I admire Cassuto’s commit to tough and frank talk about the realities of the academic job market. On the other hand, we have to respect and support our student’s dreams. Most graduate students endure graduate school not because they’re delusional about the job market, but because they love graduate school, they love research, they love being in a community of scholars, and they love the time and opportunity to read and write. 

I frequently liken graduate school to minor league baseball. Most minor league baseball players hope to play in the major leagues some day. Most recognize that an opportunity to do this is equal parts hard work and luck. At the same time, minor league players have to love playing baseball. They have to love the actual work that they do and cherish their time doing it even if they know it’ll never result in a major league contract. 

In other words, by privileging the outcome of a graduate program – an important standard to be sure – Cassuto risks ignoring the experience of the graduate program for students. He hints at this when he notes that many graduate students stay in graduate school because they enjoy being in graduate school. The opportunity to immerse oneself in a discipline, an area of study, and a method is usually a key reason for students to go to graduate school, so this should not be a surprise. The dissertation is important to these students, not simply because they need it to graduate but because they see it as a chance to contribute to their discipline in a meaningful way. By minimizing the experience of graduate school and the dissertation itself, we are minimizing the a key aspect of graduate education in the name of a kind of crude, outcome driven formula that reduces education to employment and useful skills.    

2. The Academic Jeremiad. This book is a type. It’s an academic jeremiad that sees higher education in crisis. The author is smart and subtle enough to hint that he knows this type and is playing along to make his major points. For the less than careful reader, however, this book will appear as yet another indictment of higher education, out of touch faculty, and an indulgent system. While Cassuto may well see signs of real problems, he rarely connects the dots between problems within the system and problems outside the system. Part of this is because he sees faculty and students as empowered to solve some problems themselves, but recognizes that they are only parts of a complex system that has its own set of deep set problems from administrative bloat, to budget cuts, restrictive federal guidelines, and other issues that are typically well beyond the purview of faculty. In other words, fixing the graduate school mess will not fix higher education and it won’t fix particular problems, largely because those problems remain too complicated and expansive to define, much less solve.

The issue then is whether this kind of focused jeremiad moves us toward a solution. I’m skeptical. At best, this represents a solution in search of a problem. At worst, this is another contribution to the narrative of perpetual improvement that undermines successes in the constant effort to resolve chimerical problems. Or maybe even worse, it’s ammunition for people who are seeking to destroy higher education because they see the entire project as failed because it resists the march of neoliberal values that recognizes success only in the relentless accumulation of capital.  

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